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Sendo X: phone meets PDA, MP3 player, light sabre

OK, maybe not the light sabre...

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Review The more attentive Register reader will no doubt be aware of this writer's obsessions (well OK, bigotry) on the subject of PDAs, form factors and mobility. They may also recall my joy when Psion finally mobile-enabled the netBook, and the sad death of said netBook the following year at the bottom of a sauvignon- and broken glass-filled Symbian shoulderbag. So what am I doing now? An update is probably in order.

Well, to cut a long story short (I propose to lengthen it in other directions anyway) last autumn, 20 years after meeting my first Apple and walking away, I switched to a 12in Powerbook. I haven't troubled readers greatly about this on the grounds that the Mac community really does not need yet another PC defector telling it how beautiful Apple gear is and how OS X is a 'proper' operating system. But the Powerbook and I are very happy together, my only major grumphs being sub-Psion battery life and how scarily hot it runs. Coming up alongside this (warning: point of article approaching) we've had increasingly capable mobile phones coming onto the market and sliding into the bag alongside the Powerbook. These, in the past year, have been a Nokia 7650 (originally bought as a GPRS modem for the netBook), a Nokia 6600 (damned 7650 out of memory), and in the past two weeks a Sendo X. That last one is starting to impress me as a serious keeper.

When it comes to the kit in the bag I'm interested in functionality rather than bells and whistles. So the GPRS connection definitely has to work with the Mac, for use when a handy wifi zone isn't available, and the phone has to work as a phone, by which I mean something you hold in your hand and clamp to the side of your head (nuts to speaker and voice control), and no stupid or embarrassing rings. The Mac's syncing capabilities (iSync, or Hans as I sometimes call him) wheedled me into starting to play with the phone as a PDA too, and Opera's mobile browser started me off using the handset as an independent web device.

There are two other in-bag capabilities that are relevant here - a nice pair of Sony over-ear headphones used to play the 7.5 gigs (I just counted for other reasons) of stuff I carry around in the Mac, and a nice little Nikon digicam which has voice as well (for god's sake people, it's a piggin' camera - why?????) But today, up to a point, mobile phones do all of this, and the Sendo X is the best shot at doing it I've held so far.

Not that I'm taking to leaving the Mac at home yet, of course, that would be silly. But in every area we're seeing an increasingly convincing shift from unfeasible through silly party piece to credible function, and I'm now almost convinced that I could get by without it at a pinch.

I liked the 7650 a lot because it was solid, big enough for you to see the keypad and to feel it was in your pocket (small, undetectable ones trigger 'where's my phone?' panic-attack loops in me) and came with a lovely retro ring from Beatnik in there. It did precisely what I bought it for, but the limited memory meant the contact book didn't fit into it, and it'd only run Opera if you installed practically nothing else, and watched where you browsed. It did calendar nicely, but one of the more recent Opera upgrades finally outgunned it, and the usefulness of Opera's caching system (go here for free trial, it's really handy, honest) triggered the 6600 purchase.

This has a memory slot, so the contact book fits and Opera whizzes around on it splendidly. This means that when I'm a bit permanently stationed with a table, a coffee and some peace and quiet I can whip out the Mac, while when it's a little less convenient or I just want a idle look at something I can use the 6600 independently. This piece of kit passes most of the personal functionality tests and is a phone-like phone by my personal definition. But it is dangerously close to 'can't feel it in your pocket', and is ringtone-challenged. As far as I can make out the cheapskates at Nokia have deducted most of the nice but (I presume) licensed ringtones, and shoved in lots of very nasty stuff instead. I'd thought the people with silly ringtones were all imbeciles, but it may well be that they're actually desperate folk being forced to look stupid by vicious mobile phone manufacturers.

Overall though, so long as I can get Beatnik to send me the nice retro ringtone, the 6600 is a difficult act to follow.

The Sendo X however provides it with stiff competition, which you might expect given that it's also a Series 60 phone, and it adds a couple of silly tricks that might turn out not be so silly, depending on how they pan out in the longer term. Most prominent among these are voice control (which I'm still resisting), an MP3 player and Sendo's own UI, which it calls the Now screen. The camera, with 4x zoom, is nice too, but as I said I've a Nikon in my bag or even in my pocket, so we'll get onto that later.

The Mac connectivity is good as far as Bluetooth goes, but at the moment this doesn't include iSync support. Getting Apple to put out an iSync update (a pretty trivial job, I expect) oughtn't to be too difficult, but lack of this in a phone is not something I'm personally prepared to put up with in the longer term - it's now a key part of my life, and I'm not going back to faffing around with hand import and export. Sendo boasts of the excellence of its Microsoft office syncing capabilities, and I'm sure this is important for the bulk of the heathen Windows world out there, but I do not care, and this is my article.

The preferred syncing mechanism for the Sendo is a USB cable (urk) linking it to a PC (urk urk). Which is perfectly understandable given that Bluetooth isn't yet standard or particularly nice in PCs, I suppose. I did however try the cable mechanism with a PC, and Sendo's automated system for installing software worked very well. I can't say I'll be messing with it much, but it seems a sight better tooled than the PC connectivity poop Nokia issues (tried this with the 7650, straight to bird-scarer pile with the 6600).

The contacts and calendar functions are pretty much equivalent to the Nokia ones, so I don't see any problems presenting themselves once I've got the Mac syncing capability. Calendar is not, in my opinion, ever likely to be a totally feasible independent application is this kind of footprint, but synced with a readily available application on a larger footprint device it's a real advantage. Don't think about fiddling around trying to put appointments onto your phone on a regular basis, do think about being able to check them and zoom in and out on the phone, and do think about relatively transparent connectivity between the devices. If you're a non-Bluetoothed PC user, look at that USB cable and think about how chained you are. In addition to all the other fetters, too...

The screen, at 176 x 220 is a tad larger than the standard 176 x 200, but this has yet to have a discernible impact on me. For browsing it does my key sites (The Register, and BBC news, as well as the Nokias do, and its responsiveness in Opera seems faster than the 6600. Within the limitations of the form factor, web browsing with this class of device is now perfectly feasible, and although you might be thinking 'well, but...' there are cases where the functionality triumphs surprisingly over full sized devices. I was, for example, able recently to pass the time on as commuter train reading through one of our Mr Orlowski's Register longer pieces on the 6600. It was easier to read (lots of words, but just one fairly slim load, as the pagebreak police hadn't got to it yet) than it would have been if I'd had the space or the inclination to take a portable out.

Or you didn't have time to pick up a paper? Fine, check the Beeb or maybe the Guardian. A book? Well you could, but we're getting into DRM here and although I'm prepared to read a book on a mobile phone a book is a book-like thing in my, er book, and I buy these in bookshops. I'm not about to buy them again for a mobile phone, although I could see myself reading them on one. But we'll get back to this and DRM later, because it's becoming an important issue in devices of these heft.

Which neatly takes us on to MP3. The Sendo X will take lots more memory than you can actually afford (in the spec at the end of this piece, should you be interested), so I sprang for a 256Mb SD and shoved a bunch of my MP3s onto it. This is not, obviously, all the 7.5 gigs but there's potentially considerable utility in my having the mobile phone rather than the Mac playing music while I work, because I'm not draining the Mac's battery so much. I was roughing up an explanation for the accounts department as to why this meant an iPod really was a legitimate business expense, like the spare Powerbook battery was, but - curses - it's starting to look like the 256Mb SD is the legitimate business expense instead. Why is it absolutely vital that I have loud music blaring while I work? Er...

On the subject of the memory, one handy touch is that you can swap out the card simply by taking off the battery cover, whereas in as lot of other phones you've got to take the battery out as well. The easier access allows you to hot swap the memory, in which case the phone will complain, but Sendo's techies tell me it's highly unlikely you'd lose any data.

Back on the audio, I said it had potentially considerable utility for me because it turns out some assembly is required, at least as far as my neck of the gene pool is concerned. The Sendo X comes with an in-ear headset rig, and these are too small for my earholes. I can, just before passing out from the pain, hear the most excellent quality of the Sendo's audio (spec below, again), but as shipped it does not work for me. I have checked with my firstborn, who also protests small earholes, so it's over-ear Sonys (told you the stuff in the bag was relevant) for both of us.

But... The Sendo uses a headset, not stereo headphones as such, right? Which means that what we have plugging into it is a three contact jack plug, not a two. Also, it is a 2.5mm one, which is indeed a standard but not as yet a widely used one. So while you can just about get hold of a 2.5mm converter it's going to be a two contact one, not a three. Trying this in the hifi store that knows what it's talking about in Tottenham Court Road resulted in the audio only coming out of one ear, and the store tells me that they can't wire up a headset to my specification until such time as they can source three contact 2.5mm plugs.

Bluetooth then? Standard Bluetooth earpieces are no good for two ear jobs, and as yet there don't seem to be any Bluetooth stereo headphones on the market. However, Sendo tells me that it is not true that mobile phones don't 'do' stereo Bluetooth. Not as such. They do not have a Bluetooth profile for stereo headphones, but provided the phones ship with one then they will do stereo.

So not sorted, but I'm hopeful. And if nobody comes up with a Maplin part number for a three pin converter soon, then the Sendo headset gets cannibalised for the plug.

The Now screen

User interfaces in mobile phones have a less than glittering history, with manufacturers showing every sign of not understanding the difference between usable and usability. The X still has the Series 60 UI, which is one of the better of a decidedly bad bunch, but sitting on top of that is the Now screen, something that Sendo is very proud of, and that is at least interesting. This is the default screen for the phone, and as shipped has items for messaging, call records, anniversaries, appointments and to do list. You can add application links to this and customise it, so you can set up the default screen to give immediate access to whatever it is you use most often, and scroll vertically through it. Scroll horizontally and you get to other screens (panes, Sendo calls them). As shipped, the handset also had panes for Sendo Web links, history of used applications and favourites, and again you can add panes.

Although you still have the familiar Series 60 UI available if you want it, you can do pretty much anything (Sendo says everything, maybe I believe them) from the Now screen, and although I kicked off by using the familiar UI, I rapidly found myself using the Sendo version. So I think this one works, and it has obvious customisation capabilities for network operators. It is however let down by the limitations of the S60 software underneath. This, Nokia users will be aware, doesn't do entirely joined up usability, so you can find yourself hunting your way down menus to change settings, only to discover later that the particular setting you were after can only be arrived at via some ever-so-slightly different route. I think hitting Nokia's S60 team over the head repeatedly with object-orientation textbooks might be a help here.

Keyboard

A couple of years back I recall being impressed, in a Johnsonian dog-walking-on-hind-legs kind of way, by the sight of Ben Hammersley, then flying under Times colours, bashing away happily on a foldaway keyboard with one of those Palm thingies shoved into it. It certainly seemed to work, but I'm too old to learn Palms. Sendo however handed out beta versions of their own foldaway keyboard with the review units, so it seemed churlish not to give it a whirl. It comes as a slim pocket-sized case. Push the button on the front edge and lift, the lid flips back and supports slide out, providing a stand for the phone. Pull at either side of the keys and they come out, and the central third of the keyboard appears. It's all rigid, and the total width is only about 1.5cm less than the key area on the 12in Powerbook I'm writing this on (Write it on the phone? Aw, come on...)

The phone hot plugs into the keyboard connector, and seems to sit pretty securely there - it needs a deliberate tug to get it out, so it's unlikely to come away by accident. The keyboard itself is slightly alien on the grounds that it has to duplicate the various control keys the phone has, but it's really all very usable. I've just rattled off a quick note and sent it by Bluetooth over to this machine, took a couple of seconds, doddle. Cables shmables... The keyboard itself is likely to cost around €80, which is a bit of a whack, certainly. But keyboards for pocket devices are a fairly esoteric perversion, useful for people like me but not wildly attractive to the mass market. Sure, they allow you to send longer messages more easily, but having to whip one out and connect it kind of defeats the point.

Why isn't it Bluetooth? Well, that's yet another power issue, and given that the screen's got to be in front of you, a wireless connection to the phone doesn't have a great advantage over a physical connection. I do however muse on the possibilities for some kind of semi-independent Bluetooth keyboard. Put about as much smarts in it as one of those old electronic word processors they sold in the 80s, and a small mono LCD that'd give you a display of what you were typing. Then the phone (or the whatever) could stay in your pocket (or somewhere else entirely).

Email

Setting up the email client was an example of the underlying duffness of Series 60. Sendo offers OTA configuration for a series of email providers, and although my company one is not listed, as one would expect, I thought I'd try getting it to set up my Demon account, then edit accordingly. The Sendo site however refused to accept that my Orange pay as you go number was real, so that was out. I contrived to set up a mailbox, but was defeated by not being able to figure out how you you actually told the phone where the mailbox was. I finally got it set up with some telephone help from Sendo, but even that was tricky, because the people at both ends need to know that they're both at precisely the same screen, and double check that they're still in sync at every keypress. If Nokia doesn't accept that it should fix the software for aesthetic reasons, it sure as hell should realise that this sort of thing is going to cost operators bundles in support handholding.

The email is fine once it's going, although I'd have liked it to make it clearer that you just plain can't change it from an IMAP to POP box once you've saved all the rest of the settings you've typed in. Cheers chaps. My company email is currently fielded through an on-server spam filter, which brings numbers down to a level that's manageable on a small screen device like this. My system also allows web mail, and it was feasible to browse this via Opera. The interface we're using for web mail however has too many options and check boxes (which are tricky to manage, given the way phone joystick thingies work), so if I was doing this regularly I'd have a word with tech support and see if they could maybe do a special mobile device control screen for it. They probably should do, anyway.

Design

The X is a standard screen at the top, keys at the bottom, with a joystick thingummy in the middle type phone. It's a little slimmer than usual, and comes in a black and silver livery, with a little bit of hatched pattern trim. The keys are big enough, and of themselves perfectly visible, black on matt silver. The eyes not being what they used to be, however, I find the fact that they light up unhelpful, as the glare actually stops me being able to see them clearly. The joystick thingummy is actually a fire button with a ring around it which works as four cursor keys. This works fine once you're used to it, but if you've used the Nokia kind, which are real joystick thingummies, it'll confuse you initially.

Round at the left hand side you've got the socket for the headset, protected by one of those rubber bungs you can't get back in properly once you've taken it out, the infrared (a bit like still having gas lights, if you ask me) and there's a little silver button at either side. These are programmable, and as shipped the left hand button kicked in the voice control system. Oh alright, just one little try. The system is claimed to be voice independent, and in an entirely unscientific trial was able to pick the right number out of the contact book despite my having Lady Stardust blaring in the background. OK, there might only be two numbers in the book right now, but still...

Round the back you've got the camera, with a little mirror you can use to line your head up in order to take pictures of yourself. And a socket for an extension antenna, protected by another little rubber bung which I'm not taking out this time. The on-off switch is at the top, and is one of those solid, recessed ones that won't operate by accident. Overall, a not unpleasing design that's maybe a tad on the flashy side for me, but that's a matter of personal taste, and it clearly makes sense for Sendo to position it at the geeky end of the market.

Other bits

So far I seem to have altogether forgotten to mention several things. The X for example supports a wide range of ringtone types, and comes with a shedload of wacky, annoying, funny and silly ringtones. Not that many sensible ones though, and I can't help wondering if the design team competing to think up daft ringtones then going down the pub every time they'd got one mightn't explain the phone's lateness. Ditto playing the bundled game, Funny Farmer. I haven't, and I don't care, but they insist it's highly addictive.

I said earlier on that I'd cover DRM in more detail, but it seemed to me fairer on Sendo to treat it separately, which I've done here. The combination of wireless connectivity, good multimedia and storage does however have massive implications, and the coming war between consumer and the mobile phone industry is going to be important. The camera comes with a flash, which is something of a breakthrough, and the phone has a big pile of document viewers so you can actually read the files people email you. It's also worth mentioning that the quality of the multimedia has a lot to do with audio and video coprocessors. Anything else? Almost certainly, but that's enough for now.

Overall, I like it very much. It'll do (assuming iSync gets sorted) everything I expect from a phone these days, and the extras like the keyboard and audio are sufficiently convincing for them to rise well above the silly trick level, and actually become useful. A big cheer too for the Now screen, which seems a valiant and relatively successful effort to make phones more usable and to take them beyond being just phones by making applications more accessible. Sendo intends to push hard on customisation and applications, and has a developer programme (registration free at sendo.com) going for it.

They tell me it should ship in the UK with a major network over the summer, and that with contract it'll be around the same price as the Nokia 6600. I'm pretty sure they don't quite mean this, as the 6600 is currently free on special at Vodafone (which I suspect means all is not well at The Mighty N). But it'll surely be competitive. Tantalisingly, Sendo says it might bring out other phones based on the X, but that it's also working on "other cool stuff." An even nicer X might be nice, but nice other cool stuff might be even nicer. Ah, decisions, decisions...

Specifications

Tri-Band EGSM 900, 1800 & 1900, auto switching between bands

GPRS Class 8 ( 4+1)

Symbian OS / Series 60 with Sendo enhancements

Size: 110.5mm x 48.5mm x 22.8mm

Weight & Volume: 120g and 108cc

Standby Time: up to 100-170 hours

Talk Time: up to 4-7 hours

Battery Capacity: Lithium Polymer 1050 mAh

Voice Codec Support: FR, EFR

SIM: 3V & 5V

176x220 pixels, up to 65,536 colour TFT display 120Mhz ARM 9, ARM 7, DSP and graphics coprocessor

VGA still camera with flash, red eye reduction, 4x digital zoom and self timer Integrated Camcorder

RealOne Player

MP3 Player

Multimedia sound support: AMR, WAV, MIDI, SP-MIDI, XMF, Real, SMF

64 voice polyphonic ringtones

Dual port SoniXTM sound speakers

PC Email synchronization

PC PIM synchromisation - Contacts, Calendar, Tasks and more

SyncML OTA contacts/calendar synchronization

Operator option: Wireless Village instant messaging

SMS, NSM, MMS messaging, video MMS and Email ( IMAP, POP3 and STMP)

Multimode browsing ( HTML 4.01, WAP 2.0, XHTML MP, SSL Security, WTLS support)

Document viewers ( Word, Excel, PDF, PowerPoint, ZIP and others)

Built-in Bluetooth, Infrared & USB support

Built in modem data & Fax support - 14.4Kbps CSD & Fax The Now! Screen - customisable user desktop and themes

64MB flash, with up to 32MB free space

MMC/SD memory expansion

Speaker independent voice recognition and memo

J2ME, MIDP, CLDC, Java compatible

Games: Pinball, Funny Farmer

Build a business case: developing custom apps

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